by Mike Claver
In the predawn hours of August 1, 2012, the sun slowly rose to begin its daily job of reclaiming the day from the thick blanket of darkness. The sun has been accomplishing this task for millions of years. It is a job this flaming ball of gas does with excellence, integrity, and predictability. Today would be no exception. This morning I beat Sol to the punch stirring from my sleep well before dawn.
As I lay in bed in that state of confusion someplace between the snooze button and my first cup of coffee, I came to the realization I had no idea where I was. It was a few minutes before I was able to think clearly enough to realize I had awoken in my own bedroom like I had so many times before.
I stumbled downstairs to make that pot of coffee. My wife joined me in the kitchen.
After the usual morning pleasantries, I told my wife, “Helen, I need to tell you about the most amazing dream I’ve ever had before I start forgetting the details.”
“I was part of a bicycle ride with disabled vets that traveled from San Francisco to Virginia Beach. Can you believe that? That’s insane! Most able bodied people wouldn’t attempt that. Anyway, it started when the fog lifted off the 75 year old Golden Gate Bridge just as I said, ‘Amen.’ It was right out of Hollywood.
“We crossed mountains and deserts, wide open plains and rolling hills. We experienced record cold, snow, and sleet in the deserts of Nevada, and record heat in the Great Plains and the Midwest. Eighteen straight days of 100 degrees plus with not a cloud in the sky really wore us down. We got chased by one of the largest wildfires in Colorado’s history. We dodged 18-wheelers who wished we weren’t in their way, letting us know with their air horns and obscene curses or hand gestures. Fuel tankers passed so close we could have filled our vehicles with just the smell of the gasoline. Several of us nearly got struck by lightning in Pennsylvania. Flies and mosquitoes buzzed amidst the stench of three day old road kill.”
We were now on our second cup of coffee. The memories were just starting to resurface, and I couldn’t rattle them off fast enough.
“We visited VA hospitals across the country, cancer treatment centers, soup kitchens and food pantries. We laid wreaths at the war memorial in Salem, Illinois, the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Maryland, and at Arlington National Cemetery at the grave of a Medal of Honor recipient, 19-year-old Ross Andrew McGinnis. This young man was awarded the Medal of Honor for his split second decision to throw himself on a fragmentation grenade that was thrown into the Humvee in which he and five other soldiers were traveling. In the confined space of a Humvee, his actions giving up his life, saved the lives of those five soldiers. That 'Greater Love' thing for sure.
“And the parades and welcoming celebrations were so special. The people we met were all so wonderful and kind. People we will probably never see again came in and out of our lives and we knew our lives were different when we parted. People like a Vietnam vet who came out of nowhere in the desert to fix a flat tire, another one who bought our breakfast as a way of saying thanks to us, people who still believe this country is as great as it ever was – patriots one and all.
“The images…oh the images, two college kids pushing a hand cycle with its rider, an amputee Vietnam vet, up the eight mile climb at Loveland Pass, a blond-headed Marine who was recovering from a bullet shattered hip conquering Carson Pass (a 51 mile day seemingly all uphill), the two riders on the distant horizon still riding at 6 p.m. in 114 degree heat to complete their 125 mile day, a solitary rider climbing hill after hill determined to reach his goal, a leprechaun like figure running around every morning yelling, “Five Minutes!”
“Helen,” I said, as the lump in my throat expanded, “This was the most realistic dream I’ve ever had. It was in color, and had stereo sound sometimes turned up way too loud. I could smell the sweat, see the red blood from countless bangs, bumps, and falls, and I could taste the mix of my tears and the warm salt water of the Atlantic Ocean. I even remember you giving me a hug at the beach and telling me, “You did it. You got them here.”
Yes, on August 1, 2012, I woke up in a strange bed – my own. I felt like I had just come out of a coma unsure of where I was and what had happened. And while I didn’t know for sure where I was, I did know where I had been. This was not a dream. It was as real as it gets.
Along the way on the trip, I was asked if I would do it again in 2014. My reply to that was simple. I told the person asking that question, “That’s like asking a woman in the midst of her worst labor pains if she would like to have another child.”
I do know that like childbirth, the farther you get from the pain, the more you remember the sacredness of the event and the sweetness of the accomplishment.
War is the cruelest invention mankind has ever created. Sometimes it kills you all at once, and for others sometimes it kills you slowly. For the warriors who survive, you live with the things you’ve seen and had to do, and you try to carry on as best you can. Some days are better than others. You bear witness to the harsh reality of the world in which we live. Most of us will never know what that was like; living with your fears, your nightmares, your guilt, your challenges, your wounds. What we will know is how you showed us to carry on and live our lives to the fullest making the best of what we have.
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes and ages, and I was blessed to be surrounded by true American heroes this summer. From a crusty Vietnam vet to the brash, hard charging Iowa farm boy to a group of college students who had no idea how their lives were going to be changed when they signed up to serve on the ride…all of them heroes…All-American gold medal winning heroes!
The Sea to Shining Sea ride made me realize something I’ve known for a long time but could never put into words. It’s this, “There are a million ways to die, but only one way to live.”
To all my team mates and colleagues, I leave you with this challenge. Today, go out and make a difference in just one life, and if God gives you another day, repeat the process tomorrow.
Rules # 1 and #3 are still in effect.